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EYE ON EDUCATION: Havana nights for LPHS students

Spanish teacher leads trip to Cuba over spring break

May 11, 2018
By GRIFFIN KELLY - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Carsyn Rissberger and Mackenzie Kondrat sat up at 2 a.m. talking about their trip to Cuba.

They picked weeds from tomato plants at an organoponico, witnessed the evolution of life painting at El Mural de la Prehistoria and smelled the thick aroma of cigar smoke around every street corner. They started to cry a little. They didn't want to leave.

Over spring break, Lake Placid Middle-High School Spanish teacher Jennifer Lawrence traveled with a group of students to Cuba. With help and funding from the Adirondack Foundation, the students experienced a Latin culture that has been cut off from the general American public for more than half a century.

Article Photos

From left are Tom Rath, Lindsey Rath, Jenna Eldred, Mackenzie Kondrat, Meghan Byrne, Carsyn Rissberger, Jennifer Lawrence, Katie Byrne and Daniel and the Cuban tour guide (center), in front of El Mural de la Prehistoria, a painting depicting the evolution of life on a rock face in Vinales.
(Photo provided)

LPHS senior Jenna Eldred said this was one of the reasons she lobbied for the trip.

"Ever since I was a freshman, there was an interest in traveling abroad," Eldred said. "I knew it had just opened to America, so there was not a lot of American influence compared to other Central America and Southern America Spanish-speaking countries. I really thought it was important to see Cuba in its prime before there was a lot of American influence."

In the early 1960s, the U.S. placed embargoes and sanctions on Cuba, so American companies weren't able to set up shop on or trade with the little island 330 miles off the coast of Miami, Florida. Because of this, the students said it felt like stepping into the past.

"There was a lot of old classic cars," Kondrat said.

"There was a lot of propaganda on billboards," Meghan Byrne added.

Right before the trip, Lawrence had just finished teaching a lesson on Cuban politics.

"It was good that they were familiar with the image of Che Guevara and who Fidel Castro was and what his politics were," Lawrence said.

"It connects what we learned to real experience," Byrne added. "We got the visuals and heard from real Cuban people what the revolution was like."

Over there, the divisive communist revolutionary Guevara is seen as a martyr, according to Byrne.

"All the guides spoke really highly of him and took into account all the good he did and gave him a hero persona," she said.

However, many people of Cuban decent in the U.S. do not favor Guevara, Eldred said.

"Before we went, I had personally done a project on Che Guevara," she said, "so I looked into the controversy around him and why people living in Miami might not care for him. That was an interesting thought because every time we turned a corner I saw Che Guevara. I said to myself, 'OK, maybe they love him here, but there's people back in America who have been hurt by his actions and lost family members.'"

One day the students visited a tobacco farm. Kondrat said other than the scent of fresh air, Cuba was full of a cigar smoke. The tobacco farmer invited the students inside, and a Cuban household was much different compared to an American one. The dwellings were open and minimalist. The windows didn't have screens, and some of the rooms weren't really connected or even inside. Rissberger said she has little knick-knacks and trinkets in her room at home, but a Cuban room is rather basic - normally just a bed and a dresser.

Despite what seemed to be moderate living conditions, Lawrence said this is normal because "there isn't as much difference between the haves and have-nots. You don't have homeless people in Cuba because everybody is given those basic needs."

Only now is that gap widening a little, she said, because the Cuban government is allowing more private businesses to begin. Lawrence said this is less in terms of American brands such as McDonald's and Starbucks and more like residents starting a bed and breakfast or a hostel. Casa Particular, they call them in Cuba.

During and long after the Red Scare of the 1950s and 1960s, American pop culture tended to paint Cuba in a certain way that highlighted constant political coups and black market drug and gun smuggling; however, the students never felt like they were in grave danger. Just look at Woody Allen's "Bananas" - not technically Cuba, but highly implied.

"I told people, 'Hey, I'm going to Cuba,' and they'd be like, 'Is that safe?' and give me a weird look," Eldred said. "I didn't even really think anything of it. My mom sent me articles after I got back, saying it was one of most dangerous places in the world, but I never felt nervous. There were some American cities that were scarier than Havana."

Lawrence agreed and said Havana was one of the safest cities she's ever been to because, as a group of women, they felt comfortable walking the streets after dark.

"Even in Spain, you have to worry about keeping your hands in your pockets," she said. "Part of that in Cuba is you can really feel the military and police presence."

Despite the sense of comfort, there were brief moments of stares and awkward cat calls. Being a group of white, American women walking through the streets of Havana, they looked much different than everyone else.

"They weren't harassed, but they had the catcalls, which are cultural in Cuba," Lawrence said. They'd say, 'Hey, pretty girl' and things like that, but it kind of opens your eyes to a new perspective and it puts you on guard a little."

The biggest lessons learned from the trip was actually speaking the language.

Byrne said speaking Spanish was encouraged as an educational component to the trip, but they also wanted speak the language.

"Even when we got home and got off the plane, we were still speaking Spanish," Byrne said. "Even when we we're ordering McDonald's, we'd be saying 'Gracias.'"

"When we were staying in the casa with people who can't speak English, I noticed by the end I was answering in Spanish and not even thinking about it," Eldred added.



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